The Feeding of Racing Pigeons
Extract from "Barker's Pigeon Racing" by W. E. Barker, M.B., Ch. B.

As mentioned previously in Chapter IV, under General Management, there are, broadly speaking, two methods of feeding pigeons, namely, hand feeding and hopper feeding. Each of these methods is capable of considerable variation in practice; indeed, to some extent, the two may be combined, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

It would be impossible, however, to discuss these in all their details within the limits of such a work as the present but briefly I may state that whilst for short distance racing, for young bird racing, and for all birds during the winter season, I incline rather to hand feeding; for the breeding season and for long distance racing I strongly favour hopper feeding, with certain modifications and restrictions.

The chief advantage of hand feeding is that by this method one can strictly limit the quantity of food given to the birds. Some pigeons, of course, eat more greedily than do others, and so get more than their fair share, but, generally speaking, the rule holds good.

I do not think there is much doubt that for old bird racing up to 200 miles, and for all young bird racing, a careful regulation of the amount of food eaten by the birds is a great aid to success. For such races birds require to be kept not thin and poor in condition, but on the lean and on what one may term the nippy side. Here the great desideratum is speed, rather than endurance and stamina, for any decent pigeon in good health can readily accomplish the distance under reasonable conditions of weather. Another essential for success in this class of race is that the bird shall enter its loft the instant it returns from the race point, and this habit-for it must literally have become a habit-can be best instilled into the birds by exercising them regularly around home on an empty stomach and feeding them into the loft immediately on their alighting from a fly. This involves hand feeding, or something practically amounting to it, and it necessitates, too, that the fancier shall be present at certain times of the day to turn his birds out for their exercise spins, and that he shall remain until the conclusion of the exercise, so that he may feed them at once into the loft. Here we touch upon one of the drawbacks to hand feeding, particularly in the case of the man who has but a limited amout of time to devote to his birds, but this might fairly be claimed as rather one of the drawbacks incidental to the method of exercising birds for the short races.

Another and perhaps a more legitimate disadvantage of hand feeding is that the birds are compelled to leave their nests for food at a moment's notice. Some pigeons, especially hens keen on eggs or youngsters, will refuse to do this, or, at all events, will only remain off long enough to admit of their snatching a hasty and insufficient meal, and the result is that both they and any youngsters which they may happen to be rearing suffer accordingly.

Still a further drawback to this method of serving out food to pigeons is that its chief potential advantage is apt to vanish in the hand of an inexperienced fancier. He is without the knowledge as to the precise moment when he should stop the supply of food to the birds, and as pigeons fed by hand eat, as it were, against one another, they are by this inclined to take too much. The risk of their putting on an undesirable amount of flesh may be greater than would be the case under a system of hopper feeding.

A useful rough- and-ready rule is that the supply should be stopped immediately one or two of the birds seem satisfied. During the winter season, if the weather is mild and open, and especially if the sexes are not separated from one another, a fairly strict limitation of the food supply is essential, and it is perhaps at this time that hand feeding fairly comes into its own as the ideal, if not, indeed, the only practical method, for I may say here that what one may term hand feeding does not necessarily entail the throwing of grain down upon the floor of the loft, for the food may be placed in suitable troughs or hoppers, provided, of course, that these are sufficiently large for all the birds to have access thereto at one and the same time.

The reader will have probably concluded from the foregoing that the disadvantages attaching to hand feeding constitute, in their turn, the merits of hopper feeding, and this, of course, is a perfectly correct deduction.

Hopper feeding does not necessitate frequent visits of the owner to the loft; it does not entail one's waiting about for the bbirdss ttoo alight from their daily flying; it does not call for the exercise of any particular judgment in regard to the amount of food allowed; it does not require that birds shall rush from their nests at a moment's notice for food; it does not stuff some birds and starve others, for a bird rarely cats too much (for long racing, at all events) if hopper fed; and it enables a bird feeding a youngster to supply its own wants after having attended to the requirements of its offspring.

On the other hand, hopper feeding does not lend itself well to the supply of a variety of food to the birds, for, naturally, they will choose the particular grain which they prefer and leave the remainder; and it has the drawback, too, that food is more or less constantly staring them in the face, and this is not calculated to improve their relish for it.

In any case, special foods, or home-made mixtures of small seeds, etc., must be fed by hand, and if one considers the varying requirements of old birds and young birds, of long racing and short racing, of winter and summer, etc., etc., I think that a combination, or rather, perhaps one should say, an alternation, of hand and what I may term "modified" hopper feeding, best meets the case.

There is, of course, one's own reasonable convenience to take into account, in addition, for as pointed out previously, one must not make a toil of a pleasure, and this included, the method of feeding which I personally adopt, with a view, however, more particularly to the longest races is, briefly stated, as follows:

In the early moulting season, that is to say in September, when breeding is suspended, I feed my birds each morning and evening, allowing them practically as much as they care to eat, unless particular birds show a disposition to go to nest, which is not often the case. Should this contingency arise I limit the food supply accordingly. Later, as the days shorten, and as the time at my disposal for pigeon matters becomes more limited, which it usually does during the winter months, I feed once only at midday, allowing practically a full meal, and about Christmas-time I separate the sexes.

As spring and the breeding season approach, and as the days lengthen, I return to the morning and evening feeds, placing the food in troughs, but covering these over at the conclusion of each rneal. So far, the method is practically one of hand feeding, but with breeding in full swing, and the youngsters hatched, I change to what I term modified hopper feeding, and this I continue throughout the racing season until the moult once more comes round.

When the birds have youngsters I place a small pot of some such mixtures as vetches, rice, wheat, maize and groats in the nest boxes overnight, and about 8 or 8.30 o'clock on the following morning I replenish the hoppers with peas, leaving these at the disposal of the birds until about noon, when the hoppers are closed until after the evening's fly, about 6 p.m. Then they are again opened until dark.

Small seeds and maize I give occasionally at odd times from hand, but otherwise I try to carry out my system of feeding as regularly as possible, and I feel sure that this is essential to success.

Beans I rarely use, peas being my staple food. Vetches I have recently become somewhat prejudiced against, for any advantages which they possess are largely discounted by the risky and deceptive nature of the grain. Good maize I have a distinct leaning towards, for I think it corrects the deficiency in fats which is so real a disadvantage in peas and beans.

At the same time I feel sure that the quality of the food, and its administration upon a regular system, is of more consequence than is the particular nature of the grain employed.

All receptacles for food must, of course, be kept scrupulously clean, and a liberal supply of pure, fresh water must never be forgotten.

Water is simply liquid food, and the mere fact that it is a liquid, instead of a solid, renders it the more liable to harmful contamination; hence the importance of careful attention to fountains, etc., and those that do not permit thorough and ready cleansing should never be employed.

The necessity for an occasional supply of green food, such as lettuce and watercress, should be borne in mind, for it possesses health-giving properties. Remember, too, that birds possess no teeth, and that they, therefore, require grit in some shape or form for the mastication of their food. Personally, I hold the opinion that this should not be flavoured in such a manner as to induce birds to take more of it than is necessary for this purpose, or than they would otherwise be inclined to do. For many years I have used simply small broken limestone. Healthy birds can obtain everything that they require from a reasonable varied food supply. They do not require habitual physicking, even in the shape of mild tonic treatment. Drugs are for the sick.

Good food, in liberal quantities, regularly administered, is the sheet-anchor upon which the sensible fancier will rely.